Paying for School

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Thursday, February 2, 2017

When the Prophetic Community Speaks to Power

Stanley Hauerwas describes our current generation: “America is the exemplification of what I call the project of modernity. That project is the attempt to produce a people who believe that they should have no story except the story that they choose when they had no story. That is what Americans mean by “freedom.””

Becoming detached from our story has serious consequences. We forget who we are and how to live as people of the story. This “no story” life results in us making up our own story as we go along which creates terrific anxiety or terrific apathy. Another outcome of a “no story” life is that we tend toward acquiescence, we let others tell us what our story is.  The Orwell novel, 1984, is an extreme example of this outcome.

As a pastor in the United States, what I’ve observed is that this “no story” existence has resulted in followers of Jesus who’ve adopted the story of America as our story.  At worst, this comes out as Nationalism and at its least worst it comes out as what C.S. Lewis described as, “Christian – and.” (Screwtape, letter 25) Wherever we land on this spectrum, the “no story” existence means we are not living in our true vocation as the prophetic community of God.

Here’s Hauerwas again, “The story that you should have no story except the story you choose when you had no story obviously has implications for how faith is understood. The story that you should have no story except the story you choose when you had no story produces people who say things such as, “I believe Jesus is Lord – but that’s just my personal opinion.” The grammar of this kind of avowal obviously reveals a superficial person. But such people are the kind many think crucial to sustain democracy. For such a people are necessary in order to avoid the conflicts that otherwise might undermine the order, which is confused with peace, necessary to sustain a society that shares no goods in common other than the belief that there are no goods in common.”

The outcome is that instead of the prophetic community of God speaking to Power, we tend to ingratiate ourselves in the hope that we might get some of that sweet, sweet power. That would be the Sadducees for those keeping track of where the Bible is in all this.  The other side of this same coin are the Pharisees who are still after power but attempt to achieve it through corporate righteousness that requires God to transfer the power to us. (Almost every charismatic gathering I’ve been to in the last 20 years.)  In either case, we do not speak to Power as the prophetic community of God.  The Sadducees sought compromise, “Where can we find our place in Rome’s story?” and the Pharisees sought dominance, “We will rule our own people to righteousness by fear and intimidation and that will lead us to power.” 

But our story, the story Jesus is telling, is neither of these two or any other besides the His own. Our vocation, our destiny, our “it’s written on the wall” story, is that we are called to speak to Power as the prophetic community of God.

So if it’s not option Sadducee or option Pharisee, what are we to be? (Edited: I am not meaning to imply by this question that those who voted in the recent election are either Sadducees or Pharisees. I mean for these and other groups of their time, Essenes and Zealots for example, to stand in for various stories we adopt as people with "no story." - thanks for calling me on this Daniel.) First and foremost, we live the story of Jesus and by living that story faithfully (which is not the same as perfectly), we prove it over and over and over.  And second, like the first, we see that our allegiance is never (and by never I mean never ever) given to any Power other than the King and His Kingdom. We support, with our lives, no human policy that conflicts with the King’s Way.

The problem, of course, is that we have preachers and pastors and theologians like Niebuhr, who assure us that God has, in fact, called us to make America great again. That being the very best kind of citizens is what following Jesus is all about.

Imagine the dilemma of those first century Jews when they have been told the story in their day was either the Sadducee story of go along to get along, the Pharisee story of control to get control and the Zealot story of kill and take control. And then along comes this nobody carpenter’s son from, of all places, Nazareth and Galilee telling them, “You have heard that it was said, but I tell you…” calling them to the story as He told it and no one else.

And he spoke to Power. And just to prove he had authority to speak to the Power, He spoke to the Powers and disarmed and defeated them. Everything we have to fear that keeps us bound to having no story, Jesus disarmed and demonstrated His authority over.

Jesus spoke to Power.

In Luke 22, when they come to arrest Him, Jesus confronts their hypocrisy and indicates they are working on behalf of evil. At the end of this chapter, His words seem less than respectful to these God appointed authorities, so disrespectful that they want to see Jesus killed and they turn to the Power to which they are beholden.  When Jesus came before Pilate, He has little regard for the Roman government official and Pilate sends Jesus off to Herod. Before Herod Antipas, Jesus speaks by remaining silent, a silent protest, the Word of God becomes silent to speak to the Power. This was a defiant silence, make no mistake, an aggressive silence, a deafening silence.

When the prophetic community of God speaks to the Power, we do so like Jesus did. The authority to do so comes from our faithfulness to living the story that Jesus is telling. It looks far less like Facebook posts and blog posts and marching placards and far more like people who invited refugees to come live in their home, even when the Power says, “you will not.” It looks far more like people who live integrated and not segregated lives, even when the Principality says, “we will burn you down!” It looks much more like people who turn church buildings from empty halls during the week into hostels for those without shelter from the cold, even when the Powers say, “you’re not zoned for that!” It is the confident declaration of truth and righteousness in the way that we live, birthed from a story of love and mercy, that finds a way to feed hungry people in Moore Square, even when the Power says, “we will arrest you.”

But please understand this story is predicated on understanding a hard reality of that story: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” As dear St. Francis asked, “how many rights does a dead man have?”

May we live each day and each moment of each day as the prophetic community of God and live as people who know our story.

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